Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Monday, November 29, 2010
As I write this, the brains of the people around us who are addicted to text messaging -- and there are millions of them -- are slowly but inextricably being rewired. Their ability to focus on the task before them, whether something as mundane as preparing breakfast or something as serious as driving on a busy highway at 65 miles an hour -- is compromised by their compulsion to text.
This New Cyberia is on view whenever classes change at the university where I work. From my midday perch on the front steps of the main library, I can look out at the campus green and perhaps five hundred students at a glance, at least half of whom are texting.
Two years ago, the number would have been perhaps 10 percent, a year ago perhaps 20 percent, but so quickly has the addiction to texting grown that these students apparently no longer think that being prepared for their next class or a meeting with a faculty adviser is necessary as they traverse the green. It's "Did Buffy get back to me?" "Will Fred be at the fraternity rush?" "Did Mom get my text message about dropping Dad off my Guccis?"
What are we to expect from a generation that is going out into the world wedded to their smart phones, and Face Book, Twitter and email accounts?
For openers, a kind of "communication" that is deeply impersonal in a world already growing increasingly so, one in which dates are made and relationships ended with keystrokes and not face to face. For another, faux scholarship based not on using primary resources, but through Googling and YouTubing. For yet another, a world view based less on personal experience and interpersonal communication than the trill of a cell phone text message prompt.
While neurologists are just beginning to understand how the brains of up and coming generations are being altered, the Rubicon was long ago crossed that is filling classrooms, study halls, bedrooms and seemingly every other nook and cranny of our lives with technologies that are supposed to make our lives better, but too often create the impression of doing something when you're doing nothing.
There is no going back. And while the world certainly will be a different place, it is difficult to see how it will be a better one.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Without going off the deep end, I gotta tell you that this famous Norman Rockwell painting -- like Thanksgiving itself -- leaves me feeling conflicted.
On the one hand, it brings back fond memories of when my family -- grandmothers, aunts, uncles and sundry nieces and nephews -- lived close by and we would have big feasts like this one. In fact, the woman putting the turkey on the table looks a lot like Nana, my father's mother. (That's Rockwell himself in the lower left-hand corner.)
On the other hand, there is a bitter irony in the painting. Its title is "Freedom From Want" and is from Rockwell's famous Four Freedoms series, which also includes "Freedom of Speech," "Freedom of Every Person to Worship in His Own Way" and "Freedom From Fear."
Hallowed concepts all, but a little tattered, no?
When I was looking for an image to post, I found several with Pilgrim-Indian themes, but realized how hypocritical it would be to use any of them. The Pilgrims came to the New World to escape religious prosecution, made nice for about five minutes and then began the slaughter of Native Americans that continues today in more subtle ways.
Far be it from me to tell American visitors to Kiko's House how they should celebrate the holiday. Feel no guilt when you join millions of other people to shop at the mall this weekend or watch football. As it is, the DF&C and I try to keep it simple and view the holiday as a version of the harvest rituals practiced for millennia.
Just do me a favor: If someone tells you how proud they are to be an American this Thanksgiving, ask them if they voted for Republicans simply because they weren't Democrats. If they did, have the cranberry sauce passed to you and throw it at them.
Monday, November 22, 2010
When last we visited Chris Christie, he was putting a stake through the heart of a desperately needed rail tunnel to Manhattan, the largest of a series of so-called cost-cutting measures that have made the porcine New Jersey governor a hero of the fiscal Scrooges of the right-wing.
But back in the Garden State, the view is rather different.
New Jersey is the most populous state and its northernmost counties among the most affluent. But despite having one of the heaviest income and property tax loads anywhere, the state has been in the fiscal doldrums for years, its schools are failing and its infrastructure collapsing. Jim Florio, the last governor who tried to raise taxes, was unceremoniously booted out of office in 1994 after one term. His successor, Christine Todd Whitman, was the last Republican in the statehouse until Christie's election last year.
Not surprisingly, Christie talks out of both sides of his mouth when it come to dishing out the pain.
Millionaires, for example, have been unscathed while public schools have been stripped of resources and personnel. The state lost federal matching funds for family planning because of a Christie veto, a precious $400 million was lost because of a bungled application for Race to the Top education money, and $60 million to weatherize homes evaporated.
Meanwhile, the state has had to return $271 million to the feds because of the canceled rail tunnel project, as good an example of Penny Wise Pound Foolish to come down the pike in some time. (Okay, Christie hasn't asked anyone to sell their kidneys.)
As anyone who has driven or taken a train into Manhattan from North Jersey knows, the region’s transportation infrastructure is stretched to the breaking point. Some 270,000 people make the commute each weekday and the region desperately needs a third rail tunnel under the Hudson River because Amtrak and regional trains are full during rush hours and the two existing tunnels, one of them a century old, are at capacity.
A new tunnel would have provided room for 70,000 more commuters, but would come at a hefty price: $8.7 billion with the feds, New York and New Jersey each contributing about $3 billion, but New Jersey would be saddled with cost overruns because the tunnel would mostly benefit Garden State commuters.
All that noted, the project would have created 6,000 construction jobs, as well as provide a much needed alternative if one or both of the existing tunnels would have to be shut down. It also would have positioned the region for future growth, and by one estimate, would have lead to the creation of 40,000 permanent jobs.
Christie probably could have saved the project by raising New Jersey's ridiculously low gasoline tax, which at 14.5 percent per gallon is the third lowest in the U.S. and hasn't been increased since 1988. But that would be political suicide, and the guv sure isn't willing to shoulder any of the pain that he is so cavalierly inflicting on others.
Meanwhile, Christie has continued his spendthrift ways as governor.
He regularly exceeded his travel budget while the top federal lawman in New Jersey, and has arrived this fall at football games at the University of Delaware, his alma mater and mine, in a four-vehicle motorcade with police motorcycle escorts. By comparison, some guy by the name of Joe Biden, who also went to Delaware, shows up in a single vehicle with two or three Secret Service dudes.As The New York Times noted in an editorial, at least New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg "is thinking big about the region’s economic future."
His transit gurus are proposing an alternative tunnel at a mere $5.3 billion as an extension of the city's subway system into New Jersey. The deep discount is because much of the drilling for such a subway tunnel is already underway in Manhattan's Far West Side.
No word yet from Christie on whether he'll get on board.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
The eminent entomologist Edward O. Wilson writes in his seminal The Diversity of Life that the first rule of the history of science is that when a big, new idea is proposed, an army of critics soon gather and try to tear it down.
Such is the case in one of the more fascinating debates now raging in the halls of anthropology: When did our human ancestors begin to use tools?
The focus of the debate are the animal bones with slash marks shown in the images above. They were recovered from Dikitka, Ethiopia and studied by a team led by Paleolithic archaeologist Shannon McPherron, who believes that the marks are the handiwork of stone tools wielded by prehistoric hunters at least 3.39 million years ago, some 800,000 years before the earliest estimates of tool use.
That predates the emergence of modern humans, which means that the tool-users probably belong to one of our ancestral species such as the famous Lucy.
McPherron's findings, published earlier this year, prompted the inevitable rebuttal, in this case by another team led by another Paleolithic archaeologist, Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo.
This team argues that similar cuts can be produced when bones are gnawed by animals, trampled into rough ground, or even eroded by plants and fungi, and they conclude that trampling was the cause of the Dikika bones.But McPherron stands by his work.
He says that he ruled out alternative explanations such as trampling in his original paper on the bones and that Dominguez-Rodrigo hasn't examined the original specimens and his criticism is based solely on the photos in a paper that McPherron wrote for Nature.
McPherron also points out that two of the most compelling marks -- known as A1 and A2 -- are clearly not caused by trampling, and Dominguez-Rodrigo agrees. He writes that the marks are "compelling in their similarity to verified cut marks created by stone tools."
Saturday, November 20, 2010
I wouldn't watch ABC's "Dancing With The Stars" is you paid me a million bucks, but plenty of people do for free every week. But some if not a goodly number of them are hopping mad because Bristol Palin, daughter of the former half-term Alaska governor and presidential wannabe, keeps getting votes to keep dancing despite the fact that she is a no-talent hack with two left feet. (Or so I'm told.)
So who are the voters keeping Bristol on DWTS? Sarah Palin sycophants who found away to jigger ABC's online voting system and voted, in some cases, hundreds of times for the little darling.
This has put ABC in . . . uh, a deliciously awkward position. It put Bristol on the show as a rating booster probably never expecting that she last beyond a single episode. Now the network's message boards are lighting up with people who have been hoodwinked and are threatening to never watch DWTS again. And one guy got so mad that he shot his television.
Serves 'em right.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Justice can be rendered calmly, deliberately and fairly by ordinary people, people who are not beholden to any government, even this one.~ LEWIS KAPLAN
Those were the closing words of the federal district judge as he thanked the jury that on Wednesday acquitted the first Guantánamo Bay detainee to be tried in a civilian court of all charges but one, a conspiracy rap that nevertheless will probably keep Ahmed Ghailani behind bars for the rest of his life.
Much of the crucial evidence against the U.S. embassy bomber had been thrown out because it was coerced through torture, a salient fact lost of Liz Cheney and other Bush Torture Regime apologists who were apoplectic over the razor-thin conviction and railed against the Obama administration for letting justice take its rightful course.
Senator Lindsay Graham spoke for the torch-and-pitchfork brigade in bemoaning the Ghailani trial.
"We put our nation at risk by criminalizing the war," he said without a hint of irony.
The irony, of course is that the justice system isn't broken, as the Grahams and Cheneys believe. Rather, the trial is proof that it works.Sketch by Jane Rosenberg/New York Daily News
If you're a fan of small(er) college football and live in the Northeast U.S., the game of the year will be played at noon on Saturday when the defending national champion Villanova University Wildcats meet the five-time national champion University of Delaware Blue Hens.
While Villanova is best known for its legendary basketball and track teams, Delaware has set the standard in Football Championship Series (formerly NCAA Division I-AA) football for decades, as well as been a factory for pro quarterbacks, among them Super Bowl MVP Rich Gannon of the Oakland Raiders and Joe Flacco (photo below), who was taken by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the 2008 draft and is having a sensational third season. Meanwhile, Delaware quarterback Pat Devlin is expected to go high in next year's draft.
Delaware is 9-1 overall and 6-1 in Colonial Athletic Conference play, while Villanova is an atypical 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the CAA, which is by far the toughest conference in the FCS.
How tough? No fewer than six of the 10 CAA teams have been in the top 25 in national polls all season, and Delaware and three other CAA teams will qualify for the 20-team post season tournament, which unlike major colleges will not end in a flurry of overhyped, commercial-sodden and largely meaningless bowls with a computer-picked national champion, but real playoffs with a national champion who earns the title.
Delaware, not coincidentally my alma mater and employer, is favored by a touchdown.
The game is available for most Comcast and Verizon Fios subscribers, as well as on some satellite networks. It is not available for the chumps who are stuck with Cablevision. Post-season tournament games will be broadcast on the ESPNs.That's not the University of Michigan Wolverines coming out the tunnel in the photo above, but rather the Delaware Blue Hens. Both wear identical so-called winged helmets of blue and gold, arguably the most recognizable helmet in the college game.
ABOUT THAT WINGED HELMET
The history of the winged helmet began at Princeton University in 1931 when legendary coach Herbert O. "Fritz" Crisler added the wing design, believing it made it easier for his quarterbacks to connect with pass receivers. Crisler moved on to Michigan and introduced the helmet there. Among his disciples was Dave Nelson, who was to go on to be a legendary coach himself and father of the Delaware Wing T offense.
Nelson took the helmet design with him to the University of Maine and then to Delaware. Meanwhile, Princeton football teams still wear a contemporary version of the winged helmet in black and orange, while several NCAA Division II schools and junior colleges also wear them in various color combinations.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
This [GM bailout] is somewhere in between Baghdad and fixing the flood in Louisiana. Obama has decided to take this over. He now owns it.~ GROVER NORQUISTI was all over the place on the Obama administration's decision to bail out General Motors because the executives who had thunk up the years of butt-ugly, rust-prone and unreliable crapmobiles that had pushed the once mightiest automaker to the brink of insolvency did not deserve a cent of my money. Or yours. But I eventually decided that the workers who made those cars didn't deserve to be thrown out into the cold, anti-union Republican rhetoric notwithstanding, nor could the Rust Belt stand another belly blow.
And so 16 months after Obama took over ownership of the General's shaky future, GM is the new Wall Street darling with an initial public offering expected to raise at least $16 billion.
But while tens of thousands of assembly line workers will be celebrating, the IPO is a bittersweet turn of events. This is because while you and I have recouped about $7 billion of the $49 billion bailout from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, will get back billions more in the coming months and make billions in interest on those billions, the entirety of the original bailout will never be repaid.
Although GM sales are way up, its product line is dramatically improved after it took the ax to several of its redundant model lines and it is the leading automaker in China, the world's biggest emerging market, the automaker has still has not completely turned the corner. But I too will be celebrating as Tea Partiers, Grover Norquist and their no-bailout ilk chow down on a big plate of crow.
The old saying that "Getting there is half the fun" went out with the advent of widespread commercial aviation. There was nothing fun about chronically late departures and arrivals, inadequate airport parking, cramming into a jetliner seat with no legroom and being fed abominable meals that tasted like cardboard.
Then came the chaotic response to the 9/11 attacks and creation of a bureaucratic sieve known as the Transportation Safety Agency that was supposed to be the first line of defense against terrorist attacks.
Over the nearly 10 years since that awful day, the TSA has proven itself time and again to be borderline competent and resolutely tone-deaf to passenger complaints. And it is now feeling the fury of frequent flying latter-day civil libertarians who are forced to choose between being irradiated through full-body scans (using machines that TSA employees at one airport call "dick-measuring devices") or having their genitals groped and, in one documented case, a woman's breast being exposed.
It is, of course, bitterly ironic that civil rights suddenly seem to matter an awful lot when the supposed victims are white businessmen, innocent white children and gorgeous women like the DF&C and her Australian girlfriend, who will opt to be felt up rather than irradiated when they board flights at Philadelphia International and New York Laguardia for a Thanksgiving holiday rendezvous in Miami Beach.
While I don't like the idea of my girlfriend and her friend being felt up, I suggest that it's time to take a deep breath -- or better still several deep breaths -- before considering the following:
Nearly 3,000 people had a very bad day on September 11, 2001 and their loved ones haven't had a good day since. Is being inconvenienced pre-flight in the service of increased security really too much too ask? And if it is, what alternatives are there that still offer a modicum of security?
Click here and go to the comments sectionfor an interesting, if somewhat politicized, discussion.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
I am proudly and fiercely liberal, the son and grandson of FDR Democrats who believed that no problem or social issue was too big to be solved. But implicit in that belief was that no problem or social issue was too big to be funded by Washington, and that simply is no longer the case in the new millennium, let alone with a lingering hangover from a deep recession gifted the Obama administration.
Problem is, although the White House finally seems to be getting the message, key liberal Democrats aren't.
There would seem to be a sizable dollop of hypocrisy in my point of view since I not only supported health-care reform, but believe the package that squeaked through Congress earlier this year did not go far enough. As it is, the added burden of HCR on the federal budget is more than made up for in the myriad ways it will begin to fix a dysfunctional health-care system and help the nation's millions of uninsured and underinsured in coming years, which in the long term is vital to an economic recovery.
Anyhow, the skinned cat howls from outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her liberal fire brigade in reaction to the Simpson-Bowles proposals to return Washington to a semblance of solvency tell us all we need to know about their mindset.
Hey, I plan to max out my Social Security bennies by working until I'm 67 1/2 and probably am old enough to escape any big changes, should they be enacted. But I also recognize that the time has come to make the system more progressive, not the least because people are living longer. Simpson-Bowles does just that by decreasing SS benefits for the poor and decreasing them for the rich.
And if you're a liberal, what's not to like about a proposal that cuts defense spending while lowering taxes on the poor and protecting education funding?
The Republicans aren't getting a pass on any of this, and too many of them nurse senses of grievance greater than senses of the responsibilities of governance while continuing to act like they would prefer a government shutdown to jobs creation.
Yes, I know that it's Pelosi's job to rally liberals (and protect her own turf) in the wake of the Democrats' mid-term debacle. But somebody needs to break it to Madame Former Speaker that Simpson-Bowles doesn't roll back current spending as much as it limits spending in the future. It's not a blueprint for smaller government, but rather for saner government.
That's not just a good thing, it's a necessary thing.
I'm not in the habit of praising the Brits, because their government also is going to hell in a hand basket, albeit not in the grand style of the U.S.
But it does get props for doing what the Obama administration has gone out of its way to not do: Try to make whole the citizens and others who sued the old Labor government for its complicity in American-led rendition and torture. One victim will reportedly receive $1.5 million.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
When a wealthy fund manager avoids felony charges after running over a cyclist and fleeing the scene because the DA says the charges would be bad for the fund manager's business.
When a city bans the sale of Happy Meals.
When voters in one of the most conservative states feel it is necessary to prohibit their judges from using Sharia law.
When employers fire employees for testing positive for legally prescribed drugs.
When police use a Taser on a jogger wearing nothing but swimming goggles.
When we still have Dick Cheney to kick around.
When a bank robber offers to pay bystanders $1,000 for a getaway ride.
When a male shoplifter walks out of a store wearing stolen high heels.
When Campell's markets a line of halal-certified soups for Muslims.
When school snow days are no longer snow days.
When a man calls police to report that marijuana he bought tastes "nasty."
When a man dressed as Jesus is kicked out of church.
When a teen armed with a bottle of salad dressing tries to rob a store.
When a candidate for the U.S. Senate has his own private militia.
When a man wearing a Breathalyzer Halloween costumed is busted for drunk driving.
When 95 percent of Americans don't know that they got a tax cut.
When a strip-club customer is awarded $650,000 after being hit with a platform shoe with a metal heel.
When a man is charged with the sexual abuse of a miniature horse.
When a man waterboards his girlfriend in an attempt to find out if she's been cheating.
When a town council is accused of taking a leap toward socialism when it votes to hire a single trash collector and institute curbside recycling.
Click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here for previous installments of You Know Society Is Doomed.
A Shooting Break is a three-door automobile body style with a squared-off rear, typically with a liftgate. The term term originated with custom built 2-door luxury estate cars (station wagons) altered for use by (wealthy) hunters and other sportsmen. Now Mercedes Benz plans to manufacture its Shooting Brake Concept, while Infiniti is pondering its own edition.
More here and here.
Monday, November 15, 2010
We have the pharmaceutical industry to thank for many things, including my being able to write this post. I take a number of meds in the wake of a fairly minor stroke eight years ago and what otherwise would be crippling rheumatoid arthritis. This enables me to not only blog, but have an active lifestyle.
But there is a dark side to Big Pharma, which has morphed before our eyes from for-profit do-gooders to what arguably has become an enormous criminal enterprise akin to the Mafia where profits trump everything.
The pushback against Big Pharma's excesses had been fairly restrained during the Bush Era, and the Roberts-led Supreme Court has obligingly scratched drug makers' tummies with a series of rulings that are mostly in their favor.
Most notorious of these rulings was one validating a legal concept called preemption in the case of lawsuits filed against Johnson & Johnson by women who were maimed -- and the families of women who were killed -- after using a birth-control patch that released more estrogen than J&J claimed. Internal documents revealed that J&J was aware that the product was mislabeled, but the court ruled that because the Food and Drug Administration had approved the patch, it could not be sued.
But I digress . . .
The Obama administration has been considerably more aggressive in pushing back against Big Pharma's misanthropy, but manufacturers have greeted enormous fines of hundreds of millions of dollars in drug-fraud cases with practiced shrugs and literally write them off as the cost of doing business like the Mafia writes off an occasional foot soldier or consigliere.
But now the Justice Department is striking back where it hurts -- against individual drug company executives and not the companies themselves -- who are threatened with jail time.
Lauren C. Stevens, a GlaxoSmithKline executive, has been charged with making false statements and obstructing a federal investigation in denying that doctors speaking at company events had promoted the drug Wellbutrin for uses not approved by the FDA.
"This is absolutely precedent-setting -- this is really going to set people’s hair on fire," said Douglas B. Farquhar, a Washington lawyer.
And is about time.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
For dolphin mothers, successful parenting is as much a matter of having good friends as it is having good genes. Research in Australia further confirms the importance of community to dolphin life -- and perhaps to animals in general.
For 25 years, the researchers have made detailed observations of bottlenose dolphins in Australia's Shark Bay, a one-of-a-kind dataset that has allowed them to chart the relatedness of dolphin mothers and map their habits of social association, then correlate these patterns to how well their offspring survived childhood. As would be expected, calves born to mothers from reproductively successful families tended to do well, while those from less-fit families tended to hang out with successful mothers.* * * * *Polar bears are the poster children for the impact of climate change on wildlife. Despite the amazing rate at which they have evolved -- they split off from brown bears as recently as 150,000 years ago -- their future may be bleak because their seal-killing skulls are surprisingly weak.
As the world warms and the Arctic ice starts to disappear, the polar bear's realm has started to become more temperate, reducing the number of suitable sites for building dens or foraging for seals. Meanwhile, brown bears from the south are already encroaching into their territory. With stronger skulls and teeth better suited to a varied diet, these invaders may present a significant challenge to polar bears.* * * * *Not surprisingly (to me anyway), humans are not the only species to prefer to use their right hand, and chimpanzees also share the trait.
This feature had traditionally been considered exclusively human and had been believed to be caused by asymmetries in the human brain that are related to the realization of complicated activities that require the use and coordination of both hands, but new research suggests that both species share factors that modulate brain function.* * * * *Ignoring warnings from those scary 1950s sci-fi horror movies, scientists are creating giant insects in their laboratories.
The insects in those movies were irradiated monsters and the scientists often evil geeks, while today's geeks are growing big bugs for a more benevolent reason -- figuring out why different insect groups respond to changes in atmospheric oxygen differently. Ancient oxygen levels apparently were much higher, which may be why there were dragonflies with 28-inch wingspans.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
But I have been reading reviews of Decision Points, and they have ranged from gentle tut-tutting to eviscerating, with Matthew Norman in The Independent taking the cake in the latter category.
His sadness over Hurricane Katrina is not for the victims in New Orleans, as Mr West understood, but for the damage done to his reputation by that snap of him staring blankly and aloofly down on the catastrophe from the window of Air Force One. His paramount distress over Iraq is not over the loss of life, civilian and military, but how that banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" on the aircraft carrier came to make him look naive and vainglorious. He reveals his shallowness and vapidity with these reflections in the most crystalline of clarity, and hasn’t a notion he is doing so.
It takes a certain minimal intelligence for the truly dim to have a notion of their own dimness, but this is denied him. Unlike Mr Tony Blair, who emerges from his well-calibrated if often chilling memoir as a man of colossal cleverness (though not intellect), W has the self-awareness of a bison. There seems even less to him than met the eye, and there was precious little of that. Astounding as it appears, we misoverestimated him.
Friday, November 12, 2010
Speaking to an audience at a Christian school in suburban Philadelphia (for a reported $250,000) this week that happened to include my good blogger friend Will Bunch, the former half-term Alaska governor declared:
"We must continue to build on our Judeo-Christian heritage, and it's nothing to apologize for."
This is Palin at her most diabolical. Of course being a Jew or Christian is nothing to apologize for, but the implicit message is that all other religions and faiths are not just inferior, but dangerous to the American way of life as proscribed by right-wing Christianists, while the explicit message came a few moments later:
"We can't lose this next generation -- we have to keep teaching them what it means to be an American -- the American exceptionalism that so many of us do embrace . . . We can't lose that for the next generation that will soon be rising up and be our leaders."
It is unconscionable that Buddhists, Baha'is, Hindus and . . . oh, Muslims, do not make the cut, but the xenophobic fantasy that the United States is fated to be the world's moral leader is not merely laughable. It is dangerous.
The unhinged Fox News talking head has outdone himself in his ongoing jihad against liberal investor and philanthropist George Soros. The Holocaust survivor, whom Beck has repeatedly accused of creating a shadow government that manipulates currencies for his own enrichment (you know, the old Jewish banker smeme) now stands accused of being a Nazi collaborator while hiding with a non-Jewish family in his teenage years.
It is not so much astounding that Fox continues to pay this loon millions of dollars to spout bile, but that so many people believe it.